Topics in Material Culture: University of Toronto HIST 476.

by Robin Linley

"Carpets bear many different meanings for many different types of people in different cultural contexts" Brian Spooner.

In his study Weavers and Dealers: Authenticity and Oriental Carpets," Brian Spooner touches on a general truism that is the focus of this project. Namely, what, within the Western context, are the various meanings that have come to be attached to those objects commonly referred to as oriental carpets? Historically, oriental carpets have served as one of the oldest and most valued commodities that we associate with foreign cultures and ideas concerning the "Other." Since the middle ages, Mediterranean trade, the Crusades, and an increased awareness of the growth of Islam, the symbol of the oriental carpet has increasingly come to enter the Western consciousness. As an object, the oriental carpet is acknowledged as a utilitarian good used both as a floor covering and to fulfil a decorative function. Symbolically, however, the range of meanings applied to the carpet's social existence is both complex and multidimensional. Within the literature, there appears to be a virtually infinite number of taxonomies that attempt to create a "history" for the oriental carpet through identification and classification. Collectors, inspired by articles and auction reviews in the textile and carpet magazine Hali, seek out new categories of these objects worthy of collection. Paradoxically, once only a symbol of wealth, with increased availability in the West, the oriental carpet has been embraced as a symbol of social status for the middle class. Finally, museums and those concerned with the preservation of these objects as cultural phenomenon, scramble to piece together what information they can about their production, the weaving technology, and the cosmology that is embedded in the complex system and range of carpet imagery. In all of this, the material culture historian is struck with what we have identified as a basic truth. In terms of its own social history, the carpet means many different things to many different people. The task of this project is to explore this idea.


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